Spot TV Measurement Improvements Should Not Equal An Accountability Black Hole

As most in the industry are aware, Nielsen is making updates to its panels and methodologies across all Designated Market Area (DMA) market types. It was announced in September, 2016 that the paper diary would be retired; it was officially retired in May, 2018.

Markets which had been measured via diaries were transitioned to “RPD+” measurement beginning in July 2018.  RPD+ leverages set-top box return-path data (in conjunction with strategically-placed code readers and other panel data) to provide ongoing measurement with monthly “books” like in larger DMAs.

The specific timing of the currency change and the availability of “Impact Data” (RPD+ data produced for earlier measurement periods) evolved as Nielsen received feedback from the marketplace and made refinements, based on its assessments of early impact data.

This overall change in measurement methodology has, however, been known to all media agencies and media sellers for a long time.



Any methodology change has the potential to create some level of uncertainty and instability in the marketplace. Audience shares and ratings will exhibit some shifts. Exacerbating this challenge has been the timing of the shift — particularly in relation to the timing of the issuance (and reissuance) of so-called “Impact Data,” which allows buyers and sellers to compare real measurement data for the same time period across both methodologies.  

There Has Been Time To Prepare

In an ideal world, media buyers and media sellers would have had a full year’s worth of Impact Data on RPD+ to compare against Diary. We do not pretend that data availability from Nielsen has been ideal for this transition. However:

  • November, 2017 and February, 2018 impact data was released in June 2018

  • July RPD+ data was released 9/4-9/6

  • August RPD+ data was released 10/1-10/3

  • September RPD+ data was released 10/29-10/31

This collectively should have allowed adequate time for buyers to re-rate their Q3 and Q4 buys on the new currency, providing updated audience estimates to post against. Barring this, accountability might be based on the Diary estimates, despite the fact that two differing methodologies make for an imperfect comparison.

Any pre-agreed changes in delivery threshold should have been documented between the parties – prior to schedules airing, not after the fact.

It is possible, therefore, for advertisers to hold media agencies and media sellers accountable, and they should not be asked to forego accountability, due to a marketplace currency transition. Delivery accountability is part of what they paid for, because it is built into the marketplace expectation in this media channel.

If they were not going to receive said accountability, advertisers’ purchase costs should have been adjusted downward to compensate them accordingly. (We’ve yet to hear of any such arrangement.)

Advertisers Should Still Expect Accountability

Advertisers should expect accountability during and after the transition to RPD+ measurement.  The advertiser’s media agency has purchased an audience on the client’s behalf, and that client should receive some quantification as to the degree to which it was delivered.  

If there were to be no actionability behind RPD+ data in third-quarter 2018, then why produce it and call it currency— or charge media buyers and media sellers for this improved currency? Advertisers should not have to suffer through one or more quarters with no meaningful delivery accountability.

Nielsen has provided media agencies and media sellers with guidance on appropriate and permissible use of the Diary data, Impact Data and the RPD+ currency data published beginning in July,2018.  

Essentially, Nielsen discourages comparing new audience estimates (RPD+) with data from Diary surveys, stating: “There is not a commonality between the diary and RPD+ methodologies.” However, they acknowledge “it is critical to remember that media buyers and media sellers have, in good faith, made agreements based on diary currency, Advertisers, also acting in good faith, have agreed to pay for that inventory.”

A few things seem clear:

  • Advertisers should not have to submit to a free-for-all period where there is no accountability (or where it is unreasonably relaxed).

  • Buyers and sellers have known about this transition for a long time.

  • Buyers and sellers should have communicated and documented accountability expectations for the period following the transition long before it occurred.

Moving Forward

The good news is that the result of these changes will provide ongoing measurement with greatly increased stability in these DMAs. Sample sizes, or “In Tabs” in these DMAs, will increase from 5x to more than 100x by market. Until the marketplace begins to reap the benefits of this improvement in measurement, it is reasonable to expect media buyers and media sellers to work together in good faith during this transition period.  

However, media buyers represent advertisers, and clients should not be asked to forego reasonable accountability expectations. This would be akin to asking them to foot the entire bill for the cost of the transition to the entire ecosystem, and that is not appropriate.

7 comments about "Spot TV Measurement Improvements Should Not Equal An Accountability Black Hole".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 19, 2018 at 10:36 a.m.

    I'M not sure I undertand why advertisers are being mistreated due to the "upgrade" in Nielsen's local TV rating surveys. In the larger markets, where most national advertisers buy "spot TV" , the main issue is small sample sizes, plus the need to switch to commercial minute, not quarter hour, ratings. In the smaller markets, where various transitions are under way and the diaries are gone, it's mainly a local advertiser problem and small sample sizes plus the lack of commercial minmute ratings are still in play. But once the new system is in place, it should be fairly easy for the buyers and sellers to adjust to new levels of viewing by show type, station type, daypart, etc. Sure, at the very moment when the new system replaces the old, there will be some inconsistencies, but that's a one-time issue, not a permanent one.

  2. CJ McCabe from C-Mac, November 19, 2018 at 1:12 p.m.

    Thanks, Michael. I take Ed's point, but I feel that your column communicates a particularly useful perspective for agency Acoount Management team members.

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, November 19, 2018 at 3:54 p.m.

    When Australia changed from diaries to PeopleMeters in 1991, there was a lot of similar concern.

    Best summary I heard was along the lines of  "the audience hasn't changed one iota - but the stick we now measure it with has".   The parallel analogy was someone buying anything by length ... I used to always buy 10 yards but now I just get 9.144 metres - am I being ripped off.

    The market had zero issues with the change.   Bottom line was that we got better TV ratings data.

  4. Michael Solomon from Media Management, Inc. replied, November 19, 2018 at 5:26 p.m.

    Thanks, Ed! Agree this will ultimately be an improvement for advertisers, and that any instability will hopefully be short-lived.  Although this impacts many local advertisers, it also impacts a lot of larger national and regional spot advertisers as well.  In some cases they are spending a great deal collectively in these markets, and they shouldn't have to hit the pause button on audience delivery accountability just because there's been a shift in measurement methodology.

  5. Michael Solomon from Media Management, Inc. replied, November 19, 2018 at 5:27 p.m.

    Thanks, CJ!

  6. Michael Solomon from Media Management, Inc. replied, November 19, 2018 at 5:29 p.m.

    Thanks, John. Great points!  It will definitely be an improvement once things settle down.

  7. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 19, 2018 at 6:42 p.m.

    What's interesting about the now departed household diaries is that in the beginning---the 1950s and well into the 1960s---they matched Nielsen's meter findings for most nationally aired TV shows almost magically where household tune-in was concerned. I had the opportunity many times to make such comparisons between Nielsen's national ratings and the old American Research Bureau's ( later Arbitron ) national household diary studies ---- the projections were almost identical for virtaully all shows put out by the three broadcast TV networks. Still skeptical, I tallied the local market ratings with a combined sample over a hundred times larger than Nielsen used nationally and, again, the answers were extremely close.

    So what happened?

    The answer lies in the rapid growth of TV channels and dial switching that ensued in the 1970s and beyond, plus the fact that the average number of viewers per set declined rapidly as more and more homes acquired a second and third receiver.Coupled with this were decidely lower standards for local market surveys. For example these were placed by telephone and even though a person in the household accepted the chore for the entire family, that did not ensure the degree of full compliance of each member. Also, cooperation rates fell alarmingly but nothing was done to compensate for this---like going back to refusers and explaining why cooperation was important---or paying them  more to take on the chore. Finally, the diaries were badly formatted. I filled out one about 20 years ago and it contained no provision to record dial switching. You were expected to indicate the one station that you watched per quarter hour and nothing more.

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